The Agit Reader

Sleaford Mods

March 20th, 2023  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

Sleaford Mods

Since teaming up in 2009, vocalist Jason Williamson and musical brain trust Andrew Fearn, a.k.a. Sleaford Mods, have carved out their own niche. Theirs is an idiosyncratic mix of grimy hip-hop and electronic post-punk minimalism laced with invective lyrics that touch on such subjects as class, politics, musical voyeurism, and personal relations. Recorded during the pandemic times of 2021, the band’s eighth album (if you don’t count the ones that came out before Fearn entered the picture), UK Grim (Rough Trade Records) doesn’t alter that formula too drastically but shows the Mods subtly expanding their palette musically. Lyrically this time around, Williamson not only takes on familiar Tory targets and unoriginal white bloke aggro bands, but even some of his own faults.

I caught up with Williamson and Fearn via Zoom at the tail end of a long day of doing press a week before the record’s release.

Did you have a firm idea of what you wanted to do when you started Sleaford Mods?

Jason Williamson: Yeah, talk over beats, sort of scream over them, kind of punky. That was the idea so when I hit on it and it worked, I was impressed. It worked right from the off. The only thing that was lacking was the music. It became quite apparent that using loops from other records was not going to sustain it.

What were your points of reference? I hear everything from The Fall to The Streets in what you do.

JW: I wasn’t a Fall fan. Andrew was more aware of them. I was more of a Streets fan, but I can see why people would draw that comparison.

I know you were kind of roughing it for a while as far as your living situation. Was it a matter of being a starving artist or was it more circumstantial?

JW: It was a bit of both, really. I never had any money, and what money I had, I ended up spending on drugs. So I ended up sofa-surfing for a while. Both myself and Andrew dedicated our lives to making music and didn’t surround ourselves with a lot of tat, so we had the freedom to do music, study it, and do something with it. It’s just unfortunate that sometimes life got so boring that I’d have to spend my money on drugs and getting drunk, which was most of the time.

You mentioned how it wasn’t working musically at first, and I noticed in another interview you referred to Spare Ribs as the sixth album. Do you not really consider those early records Sleaford Mods records?

JW: I did, but once Andrew came on board it became what Sleaford Mods should be. It took us about a year before it started to get interesting, but then it became clear that was what Sleaford Mods should have been. But saying that, before Andrew came on, I learned how to write, produce a bit, and how to formulate songs, so it was still an important period for my own skillset, you know what I mean?

Yeah, did you have an epiphanic moment, where it was like “this is it”?

JW: Yeah, as soon as I found my voice. Just after a while, it became apparent that I needed organic, original music underneath my voice. But yeah, there was a eureka moment at the start, purely because I found myself in music.

How do you tend to collaborate? Do you have much input on what each other is doing or do you work separately and then come together?

JW: It’s been half-and-half. I go with Andrew’s suggestions a lot of the time because it usually turns out really well. And we do collaborate more like that these days, whereas before Andrew had the music and I had the words. It’s become more interlinked.

Do you have veto power over what the other one does?

JW: No, we allow each other to do various bits. I’m not really bothered about mixing it or bothered about buying equipment to come up with various sounds. And Andrew’s not really bothered about tracklisting or about the lyrics or the formulation of the song. He’ll speak up if something’s not right, but we both usually know when something’s not right. We’ve become finely tuned to the working process.

To me, Sleaford Mods seems distinctly British, especially the way that you talk about class. We don’t really do that here the same way. Are you surprised that the band has caught on in America?

JW: In some respects yes, but in other respects no because it’s just good pop music. The way we write, the songs have hooks and anyone anywhere in the world can appreciate a good hook. We have familiar aesthetics, a mixture of hip-hop and punk. So no, not really. It’s weird because Canada and the US are completely different countries. They’re English-speaking but the cultures are completely different (from the UK).

Did coming to the States and seeing how fucked things are here change your perspective at all?

JW: I didn’t really think much about America’s problems when I was there. I just found that it reminded me of England a lot, in the sense of the forgotten small towns where the people are completely obscure. It’s such a massive expanse of land.

Andrew Fearn: Yeah, when we were driving around, some of the roads were completely fucked. And we drove past one of those awful McDonald’s cow farms. It was quite crazy.

JW: I found a lot of parallels. You say that the class system is more overlooked there, but I found you really could see what I perceived to be working-class areas.

You’ve talked about other bands taking on working-class airs before. Do you see that as cultural appropriation along the lines of a white guy playing the blues?

JW: That’s a tough one, isn’t it? It’s definitely a thing, though not as much because people have become more savvy. But I have the impression that some people use other people’s narratives without having experienced those narratives, whether that be class experience or anything else. But you can’t prove anything and you can’t say anything without being accused of this, that, or the other. We’re definitely exposed to more middle-class acts in this country. When it comes to white music and indie music, it’s dominated by people who have sort of gentrified, soft accents. Sometimes it’s not so black and white, but there are definitely people who borrow other people’s narratives, whether they’re conscious of it or not. And I think that’s wrong. You have to churn out your own existence because then what you create will become powerful, much more than hitching on someone else’s scene. Class appropriation is just one aspect of it. It’s experience appropriation, whether or not that experience is linked to class, which is a lot of the time.

As you’ve progressed and taken on different subject matters, does it become difficult to find things to rail against?

JW: No, there’s always something. It’s not like I go looking for it. There are a lot of things in this entertainment game that are very tedious, and a lot of people’s stories and presentations are just boring. That in and of itself can cause frustration. There’s a wealth of information out there to turn into some powerful creativity and a lot of people don’t bother. They just turn out the same shit, the same clichéd mannerisms, the same poses. That’s just one thing to get pissed off about—there’s a load of things. It’s not just about being angry, but I find the idea of anger far more interesting as a component to a song.

Yeah, as John Lydon said, “Anger is an energy.”

JW: Yeah, the king so to speak. I’ve got a lot of time for John Lydon, politics aside. I’m into that stuff. It works better for me than trying to sing like Neil Young, though we did try that a little bit on this album.

I didn’t pick up on that. What track would that be?

JW: There’s a tune on there called “Apart from You.” It kind of reminds me of Midlake a little bit, actually. It’s got a really nice melody to it. We try to do a bit of that on each album, but generally speaking, I prefer to be more angular when I approach vocals.

Have you ever thought about bringing in live musicians?

JW: No, we don’t need it. We have a soundman and a tour manager and even that is too much!

Where I saw you play was pretty small, but I know you’re doing some big festivals. Do you do anything more elaborate? Dancers perhaps?

JW: We have a light show, but no dancers yet. Andrew has become a lot more physical over the last year, which has really just filled the stage out and given it something else. In some respects, it’s completely revolutionized the physical aspect of it.

Making this album—or making any album—do you go into it with very specific ideas about what you want to do lyrically or musically?

JW: They just pop up along the way. Sometimes it’s premeditated, but other times they’re written on the spot.

AF: “UK Grim” was probably the last track we did, and the phrase “UK Grim” was a joke from the tour the year before so it’s weird how it works.

How about for you musically, Andrew?

AF: No, I don’t usually set out to write something. “Dawn” was the only track where I sat down to produce something. But I make music every day. I’ll get up and turn stuff on.

Both UK Grim and Spare Ribs were made during pandemic times. How do you think that changed from one to the other as far as that having an influence?

JW: Yeah, they’re kind of like lockdown and post-lockdown. I was on a lot of painkillers when we made Spare Ribs because I had a back issue. It was a very subdued album, which is probably why it was so popular! And this one is post-lockdown and the opposite of that, the next phase of living. They go hand-in-hand like eggs and bacon. They’re definitely two albums that marked a shift in production skills. We just got better. They definitely belong to each other.

Was it more difficult making these albums being isolated from society?

AF: No, for me making music is basically locking yourself away, so it was business as usual. But not being able to get together made it a bit weird, though.

JW: Yeah, I didn’t find that it stagnated the writing. Not at all.

AF: We basically came back from touring Australia to lockdown, so the first few months were quite good because you got a chance to completely recharge and we had an excuse not to get back out there. But after awhile it got a bit Groundhog Day.

Jason, there are times when you adopt another voice and talk to yourself, almost like a doctor or therapist. I’m wondering how therapeutic songwriting is for you.

JW: Yeah, of course, it is. It’s even more therapeutic now because I know loads of people are going to listen to it. So if you want to get at a person, you can talk directly at them, which probably isn’t healthy or positive, but it certainly does its job if you have an issue with someone! But yes, spoken word, rap, ranting—whatever it is that I do—is therapeutic because you can get the message out in full. You’re not having to skirt around things or worry about having a verse and a chorus and a middle-eight. They are in what we do, but they’re like books and you can get more in them. You can use them as stories, as personal attacks against somebody… the world’s your oyster, you know what I mean?

And the press release mentioned addressing your own hypocrisies. Do you see that?

JW: Of course, that’s essential because I am just as big a cunt as anybody. I’m not right and I’m not wrong. It’s important to talk about your own things because you don’t want to continue to be that same person. There have been times when I’ve obsessively attacked other bands, and that says more about me than it does about them. It’s important to be conscious of your own failures.

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